The City’s Lifeblood Gets its Day in the Sun


A fireboat named John J. Harvey shows off its spray to a crowd of City of Water Day attendees. Photo by Paul Margolis

City of Water Day

Cost: Free
Locations: Governors Island and Liberty State Park in South Field, N.J.
Time: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

As New Yorkers shuffle through an endless grid of concrete and steel, it’s easy to forget why the city and its surrounding suburbs were built here in the first place: the New York Harbor and the various waterways. Over time, a century of industrial pollution and urban planning that closed off access to the waterfront fueled the creation of a land-centric culture. Many people would never guess the city has 520 miles of shoreline.

Recent years have seen many developments that reconnect New Yorkers to the waterfront, including massive infrastructure improvement projects, environmental cleanups and new aquatic recreational opportunities.

On July 14, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance will celebrate the rejuvenation of our waterways with the fifth annual City of Water Day. Throughout the day, an eclectic range of free events will take place on Governors Island and at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

Water, Water Everywhere

Visitors can hop on a free ferry to either location, where they can get in a free kayak and join a mighty flotilla in the harbor, catch a fish, ride a paddleboard, bike along the scenic waterfront and enjoy food, live music and arts and crafts for kids, all dedicated to exploring and protecting the water. With a nod to the harbor’s working past, visitors will have the opportunity to take a trip on one of many historic vessels.

Long Island City Boathouse instructs a group of kayakers. Photo by Bernard Ente

“It’s going to be bigger and better than ever this year,” said Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance. “We had around 4,000 people take free boat tours last year, but we’ll have around 6,000 seats this year. Virtually everybody who has a boat in the harbor is lending it for this event!”

In addition to the Waterfront Alliance’s events, waterfront neighborhoods all over the city are getting in on the action this year with their own unique activities.

“Much expanded is City of Water Day in Your Neighborhood,” said Lewis. “We’ll have about 16 sites around the city. People are making their own events on the Bronx River, down in Staten Island, even up in Yonkers.”

A Fluid Mixture of Fun and Industry

While City of Water Day is all about fun, Lewis said it’s fun with a purpose. Throughout the day there will be educational events focusing on both recreational and practical uses of the water.

For instance, the East River Ferry, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary, is set to carry its one millionth passenger on City of Water Day.

Visitors can learn about the city’s new East River Blueway Plan, a strategy to open up some of the long-restricted sections of the river’s west side to recreational boaters. The project, which is being led by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, is closely coordinated with Vision 2020, the city’s year-old comprehensive plan for 130 projects designed to improve public access to the waterfront and clean up the water itself.

“Absolutely, New Yorkers are regaining a connection with the water,” said Lewis. You see it on the ferry at Brooklyn Bridge Park. You see it as Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea [both on the East River in Williamsburg]. In Riverside Park above and below the George Washington Bridge, where mostly Hispanic and Dominican families are enjoying the water. You see the numbers in the Manhattan Sailing Club that are climbing. So it’s certainly recreation, but it’s also maritime uses that are starting to reemerge.”

A biologist from Seining the River Wild teaches kids about East River wildlife during City of Water Day 2010. Photo by Magalie Bonhomme

While the Vision 2020 plan includes many projects that are focused on recreational boating, it also works them into big plans to support and improve the city’s very much alive maritime industry.

Perhaps the most ambitious project is the plan for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge a large part of the harbor by 2014. The undertaking is preparation for the new mega cargo ships that will be headed to New York via South America, once the Panama Canal is expanded to accommodate larger vessels.

“There will be some Army boats [on City of Water Day] that are doing the dredging work. At last count, there were 270,000 jobs related to shipping in the metropolitan area,” said Lewis, who added, “Well over 90 percent of the material that we use in our daily lives, from iPads to underwear, arrived by vessel.”

Major Obstacles to Healthy Water Remain

In order to get people back into the water, it of course needs to be safe. The good news is that many beaches, once too polluted for safe swimming, are now open for public enjoyment. Last August, New Yorkers for Parks‘ annual beach report card stated that beach quality had improved significantly since 2007. However, New York still faces two serious environmental problems.

The first issue is that Greater New York holds four of the most polluted waterways in the nation. The Passaic River, parts of the Hudson, Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal are all Superfund sites, meaning that they’re so polluted that the federal government requires the companies deemed responsible for the pollution to fund the cost of their cleanup.

Free and family-friendly activities pack Liberty State Park in New Jersey at City of Water Day 2011. Photo by Mike McGrath

The good news is that the Environmental Protection Agency is implementing major cleanup operations on the Hudson and Passaic, and conducting studies in preparation for cleanup on Newtown Creek and the Gowanus. The bad news is that cleanup efforts can take many years, the Gowanus Canal may never be safe for swimming and environmental advocates say that the city’s plan to oxygenate Newtown Creek is like a drop in a bucket.

Another big issue on the water has to do with New York’s aging wastewater treatment infrastructure, which the Department of Environmental Conservation calls “inadequate.” Because the city’s sewage treatment facilities become overburdened during heavy rains, about 27 billion gallons of raw sewage are released into the city’s waterways annually, according to a 2008 report by Riverkeeper, a watchdog organization that monitors pollution in the Hudson River.¬† While that’s gross, it’s a huge improvement from the 1980s, when the problem was 250 percent worse.

Possibilities for the Next Decade

According to Lewis, the protection and improvement of the waterways are somewhat hampered by city and state bureaucracy, since many agencies are responsible for various related projects.

“We need to create a Department of the Waterfront. We have a vision for a 21st century waterfront. Issues like dredging and permitting aren’t very sexy things, but they’re so important and they’re spread out through many agencies,” said Lewis.

That’s up to the city. But¬†Lewis also said he believes the public must be made aware of these problems if they’re going to become part of the solution.

“In terms of public vision, I’d love to start seeing greater access and docking facilities in each neighborhood,” said Lewis. “This fall we’ll open an eco-dock in Bayridge. They’re completely cut off from the beautiful bay that surrounds them. So the vision of neighborhoods like that — Harlem and Throggs Neck — is having docking facilities where there’d be restaurants and boats coming in and out, that kind of robust activity on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis is possible within the next ten years and it’s what we’re working toward.”

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